30 March 2016

Yotel Gatwick review: my night in a 'sleeping cabin'

With an early morning flight and trains disrupted due to Easter, I tried to make my journey easier by staying overnight in a 'pod'-style hotel at Gatwick: Yotel Gatwick Airport. Booking online in advance, I paid £56 for the night.

This is a very hassle-free way to get some sleep before or after a flight. The Yotel is at Gatwick South Terminal - you don't even need to go outside -  and it's just seconds from the railway station and the 24-hour transit to the North Terminal. There are signs to follow from the station, and you simply descend in a lift and find yourself entering the Yotel.

With a 6.30am flight, I turned up at around 8:30pm. On arrival I checked in at Mission Control - AKA reception. The young male receptionist was very polite and helpful.

Armed with my card key I found my way to my cabin. In order to fit as many as possible in, these little rooms are evidently staggered over and under each other; some are entered up a few steps and others down. The doors have windows in them which can be closed by pulling down a blind.

I'd booked a standard cabin. The website explains that this is for 1-2 people - as they state, it would be a tight squeeze for two, though you could manage it if you're very intimate and very keen to save money. It's like travelling on a sleeper train, though slightly more spacious. The single bed (a comfortable width) is high up in a large recess, accessed using a step which folds down. Up here there's a shelf, lighting controls and a flat screen TV at the foot of the bed. The 'living' area is narrow and it's a tight fit with one suitcase. A table folds down beneath a mirror, while a coat hanger offers a place to stow your coat and travelling clothes. For storage there's also a narrow shelf and an overhead rack with a spare cushion. A folding stool hangs upon the back of  the door.

The cabin has power sockets and USB charging sockets (I wish I'd discovered this beforehand, as it would have saved me from taking a UK charger on holiday). Opposite the bed, across the living space, is the 'bathroom', divided off by a glass screen and sliding door (you do have to be very intimate to share). Here there's a toilet, washbasin, and a good overhead rainfall shower. The towel was thick and soft; the white duvet and mattress were comfortable, and all the fittings and furnishings seemed good quality.

Useful items including ear plugs, an alarm clock, shower cap and spare towels, along with hot drinks and water, are available free from Mission Control upon request. Other toiletries and food are for sale.

The only really audible sound is the rush of the air conditioning ring in the ceiling. This bothered me at night, and although the receptionist adjusted it for me, it was impossible to eliminate all the noise and the breeze of cool air. Ventilation is obviously necessary in such a small space, but this was still a distracting annoyance.

I enjoyed the design and neatness of the space-saving ideas. You wouldn't want to spend much waking time in the cabin, but then that's not what they're for. These are for sleeping. Signs in the hall urge "Sssssh".  If you do spend any waking time here, with the table and stool, it's possible to eat and to work if you don't plan to sleep at once. I thought it was all clever and convenient. However I did have problems sleeping. Whether it was the distracting air-conditioning, pre-travel tension or latent claustrophobia, it seemed very hard to relax. I think that's probably just me, though. I'd still return for the sheer convenience of the Yotel, and I think lots of travellers must find this a very handy way to rest before or after an inconveniently-timed flight.

I found the hotel friendly and efficient. I liked the bowl of chocolate Easter bunnies at reception. If you're claustrophobic the small spaces and lack of daylight could be a problem. Otherwise, this is a neat and clever solution to getting some sleep with as little hassle as possible. If the idea doesn't appeal, there are traditional hotels at Gatwick where you may find prices not much higher.

There are a few shops and a branch of Boots in the South Terminal, close to the Yotel lift. If you're arriving in the evening, you may be able to find food at reduced prices in the Marks and Spencer food shop.

> Yotel Gatwick availability and booking

22 March 2016

Resort Borgo San Rocco, Savoca - Italy Heaven review

I stayed in Savoca with my parents for one night at the end of a trip to Sicily. The Borgo San Rocco resort (and the great guest reviews I'd read online) was as much of an attraction as the village itself.

We arranged a local taxi through the hotel for our arrival from Taormina and departure for Catania Airport. For three of us this was a cost-effective way of avoiding the hassle of public transport. The hotel's helpfulness over the phone was a foretaste of the customer service we'd receive in person.

Our taxi climbed into Savoca and followed the narrow hillside lane leading to the hotel resort. We knew we'd done the right thing to book the hotel as soon as we stepped out of the taxi and saw the panoramic setting, the well-kept hotel building and its little tables outside in the sun.

The hotel staff seemed genuinely delighted to see us and gave us a warm and friendly welcome and the offer of a drink. The main hotel building houses the reception, a bar area and the dining/breakfast room - plus a remarkable connecting corridor cut from the rocky hillside. We'd arrived in the morning so only one of our rooms was ready; we left our baggage and after a helpful introductory chat with the receptionist we headed out to explore.

Although we only stayed at the hotel for one night, the staff were extremely friendly, warm and helpful. They insisted that all their guests were like family, and when we left we all kissed goodbye with real feelings of friendship. During our stay I saw cheerful staff lending a hand at all kinds of tasks, and even carrying a guest's baby around to be introduced.

The hotel is a 'scattered' resort with its rooms distributed among restored village homes in a little hamlet along the hillside from the main part of the village of Savoca. Seeing the ruinous state of many Savoca houses, it was good to think that here tourism - managed carefully - can actually do some good. The hotel was very restrained in style, and its buildings restored sympathetically, so its impact seemed very positive for the area.

Our two double rooms were in the same row of converted cottages. Accessed directly from the little access lane, both were comfortable, classic hotel rooms with modern comforts. We had little balconies overlooking the hillside, with the hotel swimming pool below and green hills across the valley.

My room was a decent size and very standard in style, with a wooden floor and good-quality furnishings including a big wardrobe, fridge unit, bedside cabinets, a suitcase stand, mirror and coat hooks (I am always delighted to find coat hooks; they're very rare in Italian hotels). The smart bathroom featured a good rainfall shower and good-quality toiletries including an olive oil shower gel. There was air-conditioning for cooling or lowering the room's temperature, and a welcome message plus chocolates. I had no phone signal in the room, probably because of the steep hillside location.

Savoca's village square was a pleasant stroll from the hotel; lanes run in both directions around the little hilltop behind the hotel so exploring the village made a good and picturesque circuit. With churches, a little museum, a crypt, village lanes and a hilltop to explore, there's enough to occupy the visitor for a day in Savoca.

The hotel's views, outdoor tables and swimming pool also offer a great base for whiling away comfortable hours. We were visiting at the end of the summer season, but I made time for a short hour by the pool in the afternoon before the sun moved behind the hilltop and cast the area into shadow. The pool is situated on a grassy plateau beneath the hotel; there are steps or a steep lane down. The walk only takes a couple of minutes and I didn't find it a problem, but you'd probably want to take all your books, sun lotions etc. so you won't be having to climb up and down on a hot day.

We ate dinner in the hotel in the evening, which began with a free tasting of sparkling wine. Food was in refined portions and elegantly presented; not cheap but not extortionately priced either, and very good quality. The menu was short and seasonal, focussing on local ingredients. I enjoyed cauliflower with goats' cheese fondue, ravioli with aubergine and panna cotta. I'm not usually a fan of cauliflower but the chef here had produced a delicious dish; we all thought the entire meal was excellent. Service was slow, but it was explained that one of the waiters was at home ill.

During the meal we became acquainted with the hotel's owner and unique selling point, Vittorio. A wonderful character to whom all guests are personal friends, he moved around the dining room chatting at each table. With a host of interesting anecdotes, life philosophy and local history to share, he was also enthusiastic and generous about offering samples of local wine, cheese and desserts. At one point during dinner he produced a guitar for another guest, and a small assortment of guests moved out onto the terrace for a song and some more chat.

Breakfast was a generous buffet  which included meat and cheese slices, cereals, fresh fruit juices, teas, local fresh bread, croissants, little pastries, a choice of cakes, eggs, fresh fruit, locally-produced jam and cappuccino prepared on request.

We were leaving in the afternoon, but the delights of the hotel had not finished. Vittorio offered to do one of his spaghetti-making demonstrations at lunchtime (a popular event which features in many guest reviews). This impromptu entertainment took place in the spotless hotel kitchen, for us and a newly-arrived pair of guests. Vittorio made a delicious spaghetti meal with tomatoes, olives and garlic (fish were kindly omitted when he learned I was vegetarian). It was fascinating to watch and very enjoyable to eat, served up with wine at a long table with several other guests who'd turned up. Having learned from Vittorio's cooking, I now prepare spaghetti alla Vittorio at home from time to time.  Hopefully the hotel's budget allows for its host's generosity with food and wine; it certainly ought to be classed as highly successful customer relations.

We loved the Borgo San Rocco's blend of simple elegance and warm conviviality. My parents - frequent travellers - have said several times that the hotel is one of the most special they've visited, and how charmed they were by Vittorio. I've been staying in Italian hotels for many years and I would agree that this is one of the best I've encountered. Savoca is a lovely destination - authentic, simple, picturesque - and the hotel is very much in keeping with its setting. If you're looking for a special place to stay in Sicily, or a break during a touring holiday, this is a great place to relax, enjoy yourselves and recharge your batteries.

> Resort Borgo San Rocco
> More about Savoca

12 March 2016

New Venice Apartments, Venice - Italy Heaven review

I booked one of the New Venice Apartments off-peak this week, at only one day's notice. Three nights in a four-bed apartment cost just €180 (around £46 per night at current exchange rates). City tax was added to this at €2.50 per person per night. Prices will vary throughout the year; I was lucky to find such a good deal - even for a solo traveller the cost of the flat was a bargain.

The walk from Piazzale Roma only takes a few minutes and crosses three bridges, one with a ramp, so arrival is quick and easy by Venetian standards. I followed a rather secret locals' route; if you're new to Venice, the route recommended by the apartments - with your booking confirmation - is fairly straightforward and only a little longer. I followed the emailed instructions to reach the apartments and enter through the outer gate of the property. The flat was in a little complex with several holiday apartments in a couple  of low buildings like converted outbuildings, in a courtyard area between taller, older buildings. English-speaking Rocky, who manages the flats, came to meet me at once, showed me my apartment, explained things, answered questions and took my payment. It was a friendly and helpful welcome, and everything in the flat seemed straightforward, though I think it would have been nice to have a bit of printed information and a map in the flat for first-time visitors.

The apartment I chose sleeps four, and would be fine for a family who don't need much privacy. For one or two people it's spacious and comfortable. The front door opens into a living area with a sofa, dining table, a TV (Italian channels) and some storage. A small kitchen leads off the living room, with a fridge-freezer, microwave and electric kettle (the only place to plug this in was on top of the fridge). It was minimally equipped, with only washing-up liquid supplied, but with enough pots, pans and dishes to to make tea or cook a simple meal on the four-ring hob.

A flight of steep wooden steps leads up to a sleeping platform with twin beds, a chair and a low table. A wardrobe down by the front door would serve the 'upstairs' guests. With sloping eaves but reasonable head clearance and good balustrades, the loft would be a perfectly acceptable place to sleep. The lack of privacy comes from the fact that the loft is open to the living room - there's also an open space leading down from the loft to the flat's double bedroom below. This bedroom boasts a large double bed (made of two singles) with bedside tables, lamps and convenient electricity sockets, a desk/dressing table and chair, suitcase stand, and wardrobe.

The bathroom, next to the bedroom, is small and decent, with a shower and a good amount of shelf and storage space around the washbasin. Towels, soap and a good hairdryer were provided. Venice was cold at night when I visited; the heating in the flat could be controlled easily, and worked well. However, due to its position on the ground floor in a damp city, with tiled floors, the rooms seemed quite resistant to warming up on my first evening in particular (I guessed the building had been empty and cold for a few days). I'd recommend bringing thick-soled shoes or slippers if you visit in winter, as insulation.

The flat had effective wireless internet. I think it was well-equipped in general, though you might discover shortcomings if you did a lot of cooking. The only feature I noticed was lacking was a full-length mirror. It was completely silent at night and in the morning, with only the faintest of sounds from the fridge and the radiators. (If the neighbouring flats were occupied there might be possibly more noise.) I appreciated the chance to sleep without earplugs and lie in without disturbance - usually impossible even in traffic-free Venice.

In the same little complex there are other flats including 'studios' for two people. I looked at one of these: it had a pleasant living area with a small kitchen opening off it, and a nice double bedroom and bathroom. The location is a few yards from Rio Marin, one of Venice's prettiest canals, under an alley entrance so low you have to duck your head. There's a supermarket just a minute away, on the canal, which is open until 9.30pm.

I appreciated the flat very much; the location is convenient for arriving in Venice, for the vaporetto and for getting around, and a supermarket so close is ideal for self-catering. The standard of decoration, furnishing and cleanliness was good. The only possible drawback is that the flats I visited were on the ground floor; there's no 'Venetian' outlook and on the ground floor you tend to get the worst of the wintry damp/cold and the mosquitoes (I'd keep the windows closed and turn on the air-conditioning if you visit in summer). I didn't have a problem with this (when I lived in Venice I was on the ground floor), and I thought the flat was a comfortable and safe refuge after a busy day in the city, offering very welcome peace and quiet.

I was actually uncertain whether to publicise and recommend these flats, as I can foresee myself returning in future and don't want to find them fully booked. But in the interests of other visitors: here's the link for availability and booking:

New Venice apartments